Shtick in the Mud
Somehow, I've managed to get through many years of theater-going without ever seeing Tartuffe, so I'm grateful to OpenStage Theatre for the opportunity. Unfortunately, this is essentially a college-level production, with a few good moments, many puzzling ones, and others that are downright amateurish. It's a shame, because religious hypocrisy, which is Tartuffe's theme, remains as much in need of mockery as it did in Molière's France.
Apparently, opposition by religious groups almost scuttled Tartuffe when it was first written in the seventeenth century. Molière had to rewrite the play three times to convince King Louis XIV that it should be staged. In the final version, a representative from the king explains carefully that it's religious hypocrisy, not religion itself, that's risible. But it is clear that Molière is indeed going after a particular self-righteous, punitive and censorious brand of Christianity.
Orgon, the head of a wealthy household, has taken in Tartuffe, whom he believes to be a holy man, and has ordered his own family to live in accordance with Tartuffe's precepts. Worse, Orgon insists that his daughter, Mariane, must abandon Valere, her betrothed, and marry Tartuffe. Naturally, the household is in an uproar, with Orgon's mother singing Tartuffe's praises and ranting about everyone else's lack of virtue, Mariane weeping and swooning, and the lady's maid, Dorine -- one of Molière's ubiquitous cunning servants -- mocking the family while simultaneously trying to straighten everything out.
As a character, Tartuffe is not cut from the same cloth as Shakespeare's Angelo in Measure for Measure or -- for a contemporary example -- our own sanctimonious, gambling William Bennett. He is not a man who believes himself virtuous but is tempted beyond endurance and becomes evil trying to cover up his sin. He's a hypocrite through and through, scheming to acquire Orgon's property and seduce his wife, Elmire. His power lies not only in his own ability to lie and dissimulate, but in Orgon's credulity and willingness to neglect and bully his own family in the name of religion.
OpenStage Theatre uses Richard Wilbur's deft and amusing rhymed translation, but I think it would take a cast more skilled than this one to carry it off. Sometimes it feels as if we in the audience are drowning in words, and the constant clicking of the rhymes becomes distracting. The deliberate artificiality of the staging and acting may be in line with Molière's intentions, but artificiality can be delightful. It shouldn't translate into constant posing and smirking, actors sucking in their cheeks in an effort to look haughty, mask-like makeup and clearly synthetic wigs. The grieving Mariane looks like a Kabuki actor, with a white face and tiny red mouth, so that you are always more aware of her cosmetics than of her expression. Despite this, Joanna Walchuk is occasionally pretty funny in the role. Eric Corneliuson makes Valere a smirking, prancing popinjay. Sure, this couple should make you laugh, but you should also care at least a little whether they're ever reunited. Deborah Marie Hlinka, as Elmire, is clearly capable of a convincing performance, but she, too, has been instructed to strike endless poses. Mandy Irons, playing Dorine, is genuinely talented as well. However, I got tired of watching her deploy the same shoulder shrug, mocking laugh and grimace of disgust over and over. Bruce K. Freestone speaks in a smoothly controlled and euphonious way as Tartuffe, and again, the performance was too much on one note -- though Freestone does have his comic moments. I rather liked Con Woodall as the chuckling, sometimes wise Cléante, despite his blindingly silver wig. He delivered the role with straightforward humor, for the most part, though every now and then he seemed to be wondering if he shouldn't join the others in hamming things up. He shouldn't.
It's impossible not to feel that most of these actors could have done better if they'd been given more solid direction. Despite everything, the production was good enough to be interesting until the last scene. But then -- in the midst of a lot of tedious exposition -- a couple of actors came on who seemed to be transplants from a high school play. These were actors who hadn't learned that you don't convey age by bending over double and shaking, and that bits like saluting so hard that you hit yourself on the forehead aren't funny. Did director Dennis Madigan come up with all this shtick, or did he just fail to curb his actors?
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